POSTED ON AUGUST 20, 2008:
Lessons in Tradition
Pow-wow heightens appreciation for Native American culture
As I watched the opening ceremony for this year's Olympics, I often thought that without the aid of Joshua Cooper-Ramos, NBC's expert on China, I would have completely missed the symbolism of the show. I know very little about Chinese culture. His commentary helped me better appreciate the ceremony, although the commentary was largely soft, and didn't accurately capture some very real and legitimate flaws in the political system of the most populous country in the world. But, I enjoyed it for what it was. A sugar-coated history and cultural lesson filled with pretty lights and truly amazing displays of human collaboration.
That said, I could have really used the services of Josh Cooper-Ramos, or his Tulsan equivalent, the very next night for my first pow-wow. He could have leaned in close to me on the wooden bleachers at the Fairgrounds' QuikTrip Center and offered a sweet explanation of the significance of the buckskin dress or the gourd dance.
Maybe he could have explained to me what an Indian taco or Prairie Dog was. Both are apparent palatable Native American snacks. Or, Quiktrip's version of palatable Native American snacks. Either way, they were popular.
I didn't try one. Didn't have the change or patience for one (long lines), and I'd just eaten.
Having never been to a pow-wow, I didn't know what to expect. I've always wanted to attend such a celebration, but I'd never had ample opportunity.
I guess I thought dancing and drumming were probable. Maybe a moccasin or two. Yes, I knew I'd see special dress. And, maybe some burning of various herbs would take place.
Really, I had little idea what would occur, and I was okay with that. My father later asked, "Did you smoke a peace pipe, son?"
Somehow it offended me. What a ridiculous question!
He was only joking, but he has this unintended way of turning even the mildest, un-intrusive wisecrack into something out-of-touch and stereotypical. Then again, it's probably me.
"No, Dad, there's no smoking in the building."
The truth is he made me realize my own ignorance and lack of understanding surrounding pow-wows, something I wasn't proud of.
I've always been curious about Native American culture and spirituality. And, based on the literature I've read, I'm continually humbled by indigenous peoples' respect for nature and understanding of the gentle balance of our world.
Now that I'm in Oklahoma, Native America, home to 67 Native American tribes, a pow-wow would serve as the perfect educational threshold, I thought. A springboard to better understanding this state's history, culture, and diversity.
Culture in Color
As I ambled through the parking lot, I saw many of the 67 tribes represented in license plates. This really was the annual Intertribal Indian Club of Tulsa's pow-wow. Their 31st.
Saturday, August 9, I arrived late in the evening to make the intertribal dancing contests. I paid my $5 entry just in time to see the junior girls, boys, and senior women compete in six contests.
The junior girls and boys didn't have as many participants as the senior women. The women had 40 to 50 dancers, while combined the juniors had half that. The women danced the cloth, fancy shawl, and jingle, while the boys did their traditional dance, and the girls stuck to the buckskin. All were dressed in full, colorful regalia.
During the dancing breaks I made my way away from the dance arena to check out all the booths. I found jewelry, art, clothing, and even shoes I would have bought for myself or loved ones, but I have a thing against carrying cash on my person. All would have to wait, since all the items exceeded the six dollars I was holding in my back pocket. My loved ones will just have to make due with my own handmade versions of what I observed. Sorry. Isn't my love enough?
What struck me about the event was the tradition of it all. One of my only expectations.
My grandfather once traced his own ancestry to 15/16 Irish, but other than the occasional baked potato and a beer I know very little about Ireland or Irish tradition. It's a shame. The same can't be said of the Native Americans and their traditions after the pow-wow.
Children as young as three and four were dressed in full regalia. The pow-wow was a cohesive, family event. A learning and bonding experience for more than just me. The dancing contests were fun, but watching elderly family members and their young grandchildren moving to the drummers during what I'm calling the celebratory dance was the highlight of the event. It moved me. I wanted to get up and shuffle around the dance arena, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, although I was invited.
The emcee suggested that if we, the audience, "couldn't dance to this then we couldn't dance to anything." It's just one of the many comments I appreciated from the night's emcee. In time, with more pow-wows, maybe I'd feel more comfortable about joining in.
The drumming was powerful; the dancing elegant and fluid. The regalia ranged from lacking to elaborate, albeit the elaborate was far better represented. Some people were outfitted with jingling bells which, when followed by a man in such an outfit, were comforting, because of the familiarity of the repetition. It was like a confirmation that Santa Claus was watching over me, although it only lasted until the man turned to go down a different row to his parking space.
Now he's following someone else. Maybe I've been more naughty than nice this year. It's only August. I can remedy that by December, my mind joked. I avoided verbally committing to my quip, but I would later write it.
On the drive home I was thinking a great deal about what I'd observed earlier. My respect and appreciation of Native American tradition had only grown. I was happy I'd attended, but for my next pow-wow I'm going to take a little more cash, and an empty belly, for one of those Indian tacos. And, I'll be a hell of a lot more comfortable with my own role in the traditional event. We'll see about the dancing shoes. Between now and then maybe I can score my father a peace pipe as a joke. He'd love that.
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